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World News

UN calls for new laws to prevent the burning of religious texts but free speech advocates including UK Gov concerned

by Sophie Drew

The UN Human Rights Council has taken a stand against the burning of religious texts, and acts of blasphemy, in a new resolution – but critics are concerned about the limitations being placed on freedom of speech.

The UN is calling for individuals to be held accountable for acts of blasphemy, particularly those involving desecration of the Qur’an.

The resolution, entitled "Countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence", suggests that such penalties would align with "obligations of States arising from international human rights law."

The resolution was opposed by 14 votes, with seven abstentions and 28 votes in favour. The UK government was among those opposing it. A statement said: "International human rights law provides narrowly defined parameters on which freedom of expression can be limited, and we don’t accept that attacks on religion or religious texts constitute advocacy of hatred," said a representative from the UK government.

"Whilst we completely reject acts seeking to incite discrimination or violence, it is crucial to remember that the primary function of the international human rights framework – borne out of past bitter experiences – is to protect individuals from the State."

This resolution follows a public incident in Sweden where the Qur’an was burnt as a form of protest. The event was allowed by Sweden’s authorities under free speech laws, but led to massive condemnation from a number of countries; particularly those where Islam is the main state religion.

In cities across the world, people took to the Swedish embassies to protest the decision.

Giorgio Mazzoli, ADF International’s Director of UN Advocacy, shared his thoughts on the resolution from the Human Rights Council in Geneva: “The deliberate burning of sacred books, whether it involves the Qur’an, the Bible, or the Torah, is an act of provocation, which can stir emotions and cause serious offense to many.

"However, in a democratic society, the cost of safeguarding our fundamental right to speak freely sometimes lies in the discomfort of being offended by the actions of others with which we disagree. 

"Regardless of the form it takes, nobody should face criminal penalties for expressing their core convictions, nor disagreeing with a certain religion or belief system.

"The anti-blasphemy resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council is a troubling regression for international religious freedom protections. It must be a clarion call for all those who believe in the importance of freedom of expression to recommit to championing this fundamental human right on the global stage, and stand firmly against blasphemy laws.”

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